One of the things I recall about visiting Morrisonâ€™s home in 1998 was a painting of a watermelon with deep red flesh that hung high on her living room wall. It made me laugh a little: how like Morrison to take that old stereotype of black folks eating watermelon and embrace it, reframe it and exhibit it as art.
Indeed, that was what she did with the history of slavery in Beloved, a novel that changed my life. At public school in Pickering, Ont., where I grew up in the 1970s, slavery comprised a dusty corner of the curriculum. What I knew coming out of Grade 6 was that slaves were people in my textbooks who looked like me; that they were unpaid workers that had picked cotton on plantations in the American South and that they had been treated harshly. I knew that some slaves had escaped to Canada, where they became free at last, and that the rest were liberated after a civil war that demolished a gracious Southern lifestyle. Our lessons about slavery were vague: although it was made clear to me that it was a wicked institution, it was also subtly communicated that as a black person, the shame was mine.